Nobody is saying this is the best Habs team ever, but they are nonetheless rewriting the record books by carving out the best start in team history. Last night, Montreal looked to improve to 8-0-0 against the Buffalo Sabres, a team that has undergone a major overhaul since the two sides last met in the spring.
Understudy Mike Condon got the call last night, as Carey Price prepares for a Saturday night matchup with the Leafs. And it was a tall order, against a squad that boasts improved offensive prowess in Evander Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and the highly touted Jack Eichel.
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Buffalo came out flying in this one, getting two great looks within the first few minutes. Condon stood tall, but the Canadiens had difficulty clearing the zone early. Alexander Semin took a penalty at the five-minute mark, and Buffalo set up a powerplay that only relied on one defenceman - a decision that seemed to make sense based on their capable forwards.
However, it almost came back to bite them as Tomas Plekanec got a partial break, only to be turned aside by Sabres netminder Chad Johnson.
Buffalo didn't score on the PP, but they continued to press, hitting the post on a close chance and pressing the Habs in their own zone. Eichel in particular had a strong showing in the first half of the game. The Habs were getting chances by turning quickly in transition, but it was clear the team was having trouble setting up and establishing any sort of consistent attack.
Few teams can turn the play around with speed as the Canadiens can, but relying on your opponents' mistakes also puts the puck on their stick, so it's a dodgy strategy. Also noteworthy, the Habs iced the puck a lot in the first period, and old habits appeared to be resurfacing.
Dale Weise got the Habs on the board on a pretty little give and go with Subban with five minutes to go in the first. Eichel would dangle Petry and create two quality chances for the Sabres in the final minute of the frame, but intermission arrived before the score could be tied.
Things got wild in the second. Brendan Gallagher opened the scoring forty five seconds into the period in the most Gallagher-fashion possible, whacking the puck by Johnson after several attempts. Four minutes later, Matt Moulson put the Sabres on the board. Fleischmann found himself in the box five minutes later, and it took the Sabres only five seconds before Ryan O'Reilly tied the game with a powerplay goal. Having erased a 2-0 deficit, it appeared Buffalo was very much in control, and would continue to press the Habs.
However, Andrei Markov had something to say about that. The veteran defenseman contributed on every one of the Habs' next five markers, beginning with a secondary assist on Torrey Mitchell's deflection of a PK Subban point shot.
The General then drove home a slapshot of his own with a minute and a half remaining in the second, on a shot that Johnson probably could have stopped.
Markov's 4-2 goal came only four seconds into a Montreal powerplay, and set the tone for the rest of the game.
Another penalty against the Sabres, this time an interference call on former Hab Josh Gorges, led to the Tricolore notching a goal just 27 seconds into the third.
Again, it was Brendan Gallagher starting off the period on the right note, scoring from beside the crease for his second of the game. Pacioretty would add one to make it 6-2, and then Weise turned the game into a laugher with his second of the night, a tip on an Andrei Markov point shot.
Although the score was lopsided, the game itself was more closely contested than the scoresheet shows. The first half of the game favoured the Sabres, with youngsters Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel looking particularly dangerous, and forcing Mike Condon to make several saves in order to preserve the lead in the first.
When the Sabres caught up, they appeared in complete control of the game, and they may have been, were it not for the porous goaltending of Chad Johnson, and the Habs' piling on once the lead was re-established.
Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart looked great tonight, particularly in the first period. Their hands were smooth, Eichel was the fastest player on the ice, and they hemmed the Habs in their own zone for stretches. There is a narrative this season that Buffalo is still a bad team, but I'm not buying it.
Chad Johnson didn't have a strong night. The Sabres called up Linus Ullmark, who should get the start tomorrow against the Devils, and Buffalo knows he'll have to be better than Johnson looked tonight.
Condon made several strong saves, but he's got some work to do. He has a tendency to overcommit in scrambles and finds himself out of position as a result. Carey Price had the same problems early in his career, though, so it's coachable.
The line of Alexander Semin, Lars Eller, and Alex Galchenyuk was basically used as the Habs fourth line. Early in the game, they looked to be the best match against the speedy Buffalo youth, so I'm not sure what the thinking was there.
Andrei Markov had a career night, logging one goal and four assists for his first ever five-point game. It gave him 501 career points, all with the Habs, and we love him for it.
The Habs had a lot of trouble establishing their attack early in the game, relying on speedy transitions instead. They also had trouble clearing the zone in the early going, and iced the puck a few times once they had the lead. These are disturbing signs, which serve as reminders of the team's strategies last year. Once the offense got going in the second, they did pretty well to keep pressing. Hopefully it will become obvious to the brass, that this is the best strategy for a team with this depth and skill.
It was a win, but it's the kind of win you can learn from. Hopefully the Habs will do just that when they take their talents back to home base on Saturday night to face the beat-up Maple Leafs.